Late Night Rumors: Leno, Letterman, O’brien And More

Late Night Edition

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
Rumor Patrol
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In last week’s column, I casually mentioned that “The Jay Leno Show” would kill network television. Fortunately, NBC plunged a stake into its heart before it could do any more damage. Now what? Will the post-prime-time airwaves become a desolate hellscape in which men battle one another in a winner-take-all competition for pop cultural supremacy? Likelihood: probable.

Rumor: Jay Leno is moving back to his old 10:35 p.m. slot.

Likelihood: Certain. NBC confirmed this at a press conference on Jan. 10., saying it wanted to bump the Conan O’Brien-hosted “Tonight Show” back to 11:05 p.m. to make room for a truncated half-hour version of “The Jay Leno Show” after local nightly news broadcasts.

Rumor: Conan O’Brien doesn’t want to vacate his current slot.

Likelihood: True. The host released an “Open Letter to NBC” last week saying he was not interested in having “The Tonight Show” rolled back to 11:05 p.m.—a move he believed would “seriously damage what I consider to be the greatest franchise in the history of television.”

Rumor: O’Brien is moving to FOX.

Likelihood: Possible. In his open letter, O’Brien said he had “no current offer” on the table from any other network. I guarantee that’s changed. FOX would be happy to snag him, putting him in direct competition with Leno and Letterman. There is some talk that the FOX affiliates might be angry over the fact that they’d have to cancel programming they currently air. But I can’t see our local KASA-2, for example, getting too upset about trading “Star Trek: The Next Generation” reruns for a Conan O’Brien-led talk show.

Rumor: NBC would lose a fortune if O’Brien left.

Likelihood: Medium-high. Some say O’Brien’s contract states no specified air time for “The Tonight Show” (a result of the occasional need to bump it for special events like the Olympics). That might give NBC legal grounds for moving the show—which means nothing if O’Brien won’t play ball. Some insiders say the network would have to pay him a hefty sum to vacate the slot. Others say the network would prevent him from working for another network for 3 and a half years (the length of his contract). Another set of rumors implies that NBC agreed to “match” O’Brien’s current salary (probably north of $20 million) even if he goes to another network. This would allow O’Brien to work for less money (at FOX, perhaps) and still take NBC’s loot.

Rumor: David Letterman is the big winner here.

Likelihood: Arguable. Yes, Letterman’s ratings on “Late Show” have soared since O’Brien took over “The Tonight Show” slot. But Leno’s old audience has scattered to the four winds. George Lopez, for example, is quietly pulling in a million viewers on his late-night TBS talk show “Lopez Tonight.” If O’Brien does defect to FOX on a nightly basis, expect a royal rumble for viewers’ attentions with O’Brien, Lopez, Letterman, Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Craig Ferguson, Jimmy Fallon and the crew at "Nightline" all competing for post-prime-time eyeballs.

Rumor: NBC president and CEO Jeff Zucker is losing his job.

Likelihood: Sadly low. I pretty much just made this one up. But he should. This is one of the biggest debacles in the history of television.
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